KANKAKEE — Youth around the city of Kankakee are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work this summer, and according to Kankakee Mayor Chris Curtis, their efforts are both needed and appreciated.

“We’ve got a lot of work that we are trying to get done in the city of Kankakee,” Curtis said.

A total of 31 young people ages 15 to 21 have taken on city jobs this summer, and of those 31 workers, 24 were hired through the KEYS (Kankakee Employment of Youth Summer) work program.

KEYS is a new initiative this year created using American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Curtis said the city allocated $160,000 in ARPA funding for one year of the program, and about $120,000 to $125,000 of that money is being utilized.

The unused funding from this year’s program can hopefully be earmarked to continue it next summer, he said.

He said he would like the program to continue for at least two or three years before being re-evaluated, and ideally, he wants it to continue every summer for the remainder of his term as mayor.

“Everybody is always saying the youth need something to do in the summer, and instead of just hanging out with nothing to do, this teaches them life skills,” he said.


The program gives youth who reside in the city of Kankakee the opportunity to work 35 to 40 hours per week and earn $15 per hour.

Work ranges from helping in the city’s various offices or the Kankakee Public Library, to selling city vehicle stickers, landscaping and painting sidewalks, streets and light poles.

“It’s a win-win,” Curtis said. “They are going to help us get caught up on some things that haven’t been able to be taken care of for the last several years, and we’re going to help them by giving them a paycheck, but more importantly, hopefully, a future reference that leads them to a bigger and better job.”

The youth also participate in an orientation and various “lunch and learn” training sessions, which focus on professional skills like interviewing, resume building, making a good first impression, providing customer service and dressing for success.

The program began June 6 and will be running for eight weeks through Aug. 5. The deadline to apply was May 16.

Curtis also noted that, as long as participants show up to work every day on time, stick with the program for the whole summer and give it their best effort, he would be happy to provide references for any KEYS worker.


Carolyn Croswell, the city’s human resources director, said 62 applications were submitted for KEYS, and every youth who applied correctly and met the program’s criteria was given a job.

“We hired 100 percent of people who applied and did everything by the book,” she said.

Additionally, a few names of youth who met the criteria but applied late are being kept on file in case one of their peers is unable to fulfill their obligations.

Croswell noted more youth applied than there were spots available, but the city found ways to accommodate everyone.

“We made spots for those who qualified and did everything they were supposed to do,” she said. “We wanted to get them all in, so we really had our departments step up and hire more kids.”

Croswell said the reactions of youth when she calls to offer them a position “always makes me tingle a little bit,” with many making exclamations to their parents in the background.

Their excitement shows in the HR office as well.

“One student hugged me, they were so glad to get their first job,” she recalled.

Areas where youth are working include the Kankakee Public Library, Mayor Chris Curtis’ office, and other city departments such as the Department of Public Works, the Economic & Community Development Agency, Building & Code Enforcement, Human Resources, Finance and the city’s Utilities and Sewer departments.

In addition to job skills in those particular areas, the program also focuses on financial smarts and what to do with a paycheck, Croswell noted.

“For many of our kids, this is their first job,” she said. “They’ve never worked before, and so we know that being able to have a real resume and put that you worked for the city of Kankakee on there will open doors for you.”


Stephanie Markham joined the Daily Journal in February 2020 as the education reporter. She focuses on school boards as well as happenings and trends in local schools. She earned her B.A. in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

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